Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Can Spain's New Party Build On Its EU Poll Success?
Pablo Iglesias of the new left-wing Podemos Party in Spain.
Podemos Attracts Strong Protest Vote

Wall Street Journal
May 26, 2014 10:55 a.m. ET

Pablo Iglesias, head of leftist group "Podemos", or "We Can", may have attracted support from young members of the movement known as "indignado"

MADRID—An upstart leftist party that advocates a minimum income, a cap on salaries and a lower retirement age caused the biggest upset in Spain's elections for the European Parliament.

Now the question for many is whether Podemos—Spanish for "we can"—will pose an enduring challenge to the country's long-standing political order, like Greece's Syriza party, or whether it has simply attracted a one-off protest vote that is unlikely to be replicated in Spain's own general election.

Podemos won five of Spain's 54 seats in the European Union's legislature Sunday, surpassing all expectations. A month ago few if any polls gave the group, founded early this year, a chance to win even one seat. The party took 7.9% of the votes in Spain, coming fourth just behind a coalition led by Communists.

The result was a surprisingly strong protest vote against Spain's two mainstream parties—the governing conservative Popular Party, which finished first Sunday, and the main opposition Socialists. Both have run the country during its recent recession and resorted to unpopular austerity measures. Together they won 49% of the vote, their worst showing since they began dominating the country's politics in the early 1980s.

Podemos is still far from achieving the success of Syriza, which came out on top in Greece in Sunday's EU ballot, but it is off to the fastest start of any Spanish party in recent decades.

The party mirrors Syriza in many ways: Pablo Iglesias, the 35-year-old university professor that leads Podemos, said he sees Syriza, led by 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, as an inspiration.

Both parties shun the openly anti-EU stance of right-wing euroskeptics that won the biggest share of Sunday's vote in the U.K., France and Denmark, but have exploited popular dissatisfaction with EU policies in their own ways. Syriza and Podemos share a similar far-left political platform, heavy on social issues and calls for political control of the independent European Central Bank.

"We don't want to be ruled by Germany, and be left to provide cheap labor" for Europe, Mr. Iglesias said in a recent interview. "It's they, the pro-austerity people, who are working against Europe. It's they who stopped [then-Greek Prime Minister George] Papandreou from holding a referendum on the bailout package they imposed."

All the same, some analysts say Podemos and Syriza have much in common with France's National Front, including comparable prescriptions to cure years of skyrocketing unemployment and economic stagnation across Europe.

In a blog post last week, José Ignacio Torreblanca, the head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pro-EU think tank, wrote that Podemos is hostile to the euro. He said it seeks massive nationalizations and the withdrawal of the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon that sets working rules for the EU—stances shared by many right-wing euroskeptics.

Mr. Torreblanca also said that like the charismatic Mr. Tsipras and leaders of many of right-wing movements throughout Europe's history, Mr. Iglesias is channeling support for Podemos through his own personal popularity.

In Sunday's vote, Podemos was the only Spanish party in recent memory to stamp the face of its leader, rather than a party symbol, on the ballot. This may have been designed to help voters identify a new party that banked on media appearances by its leader, Mr. Torreblanca said, but was a departure from recent Spanish tradition.

Mr. Iglesias's prominence may have boosted Podemos's support from young members of the movement known as "indignado" who swarmed into Spanish plazas three years ago to rage against government corruption and economic inequality. That movement fizzled out after failing to focus its proposals and form an organization that could carry them forward, but its sentiment remains deeply embedded among Spain's young adults.

It's unclear, however, whether Mr. Iglesias will be able to lead Podemos to success in coming regional and national elections in Spain, over the next year and a half.

Spain's system of proportional representation in elections for national parliament tend to favor larger parties, said José Pablo Ferrándiz, deputy head of Metroscopia, a polling firm.

That means small protest parties tend to secure seats only in larger districts, such as Madrid and Barcelona.

The main opposition Socialist Party, after its disappointing second place in Sunday's vote, is likely to tack left to keep Podemos and other upstart groups from grabbing more of its support. Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, 62, resigned as the Socialist leader Monday. His replacement is widely expected to be much younger to compete with the likes of Mr. Iglesias.

—Ilan Brat and Christopher Bjork in Madrid and Nektaria Stamouli in Athens contributed to this article

Write to David Román at david.roman@wsj.com

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